Arab Social Customs

Social Customs

What are local customs like? 

Needless to say, many Arab customs are very different from those in the west, and you should be aware of what you're expected to do and not to do. Although Arabs are understanding and unlikely to take offence at social blunders, provided they arise from ignorance rather than malice, you will be made far more welcome if you acquaint yourself with local ways of doing things.

It's important to remember that you're a foreigner and you must therefore adapt to the customs and social behaviour of the region - not the other way round. In addition to actions and behaviour which are regarded as criminal, there are certain unwritten rules that you must observe in order not to offend local sensibilities.


There are two distinct types of women's clothing in the region: one for locals, the other for expatriates. Outside the home, most Arab women dress according to religious custom, which means that they must cover most of the body, from head to foot. The traditional black overgarment (abaya) is ankle length with long sleeves and a high neckline, and the hair is covered. Some Arab women are totally covered, including their face and hands, especially Saudis and those with strictly religious beliefs. This is meant to protect women from unwanted attention, and in Saudi Arabia even foreign women must wear an abaya outside the home; the religious police will stop any woman who has her head uncovered and direct her to cover her hair immediately.

In the other states, foreign women may wear western clothes but should always dress conservatively. The region's hot climate and customs call for informal but smart dressing. Arabs frown on clothes which reveal the shoulders, arms and legs, and any woman dressing provocatively will be regarded as being of 'easy virtue' or perhaps even worse. In the home, however, when not entertaining close friends or relatives, Arab women often adopt western dress, particular younger women, and there are no restrictions the way foreign women may dress in private. Arab men wear the thobe, a loose, ankle-length robe made from fine white cotton (or heavier woollen material in winter). There are different styles of thobe, both in the cut of the cloth and in the fastenings at the neck and front. Perhaps the most distinctive are those worn by the Omanis, which sport a tassel. The thobe can be worn for all occasions, either social or business. An outer cloak, the bisht, is worn on formal occasions and can be very costly, with border embroidery in gold thread and the material itself of the finest quality.

The traditional, distinctive head covering is the guthra, a white or red and white checkered cloth held in place by the agal, a black 'rope' which was originally a camel tether. There are different types of agal: for example, Qataris normally wear a more African-style headdress, with two long 'tails' reaching down the back. Arab men sometimes wear casual dress on very informal occasions or at the beach, but Saudi men are strongly encouraged to wear national dress at all times. Obviously, foreign men aren't expected to wear Arab garments, and western dress is the norm.

Men should avoid wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts in the street, as is these are regarded as excessively casual, although with the development of tourism, this attitude is softening. However, suits are rarely worn in the Gulf, except for important business meetings and related social events. Standard wear in the office is a shirt (usually long-sleeved), tie and lightweight trousers.

Terms of Address

Arabs generally value civility highly, and it's important that you greet (and part from) local people in the correct way. The use of Arab names can be confusing for newcomers to the region. For example, a man might be called Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Jishi. Abdullah is his given name and he's the son or grandson of (bin) Abdul Aziz; Al-Jishi is the family or tribal name. To make matters even more complicated, given names are often abbreviated: for example, Mohammed can be shortened to Hamad or Flamed.

It's important to use the full name, however, particularly on formal occasions and in correspondence. Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz ALlishi should never be called Abdullah (let alone the diminutive Abdul), although the patronymic may be omitted and he can be addressed as Abdullah The general formal address is 'Sayyed' ('Sir') for a man or 'Sayeeda' (or 'Sayedity') for a woman, followed by the person's full name. Arab women can be addressed as 'Madame'.

Rulers are usually addressed as 'Your Highness ('Your Majesty' in the case of the King of Saudi Arabia). Senior members of ruling families are called 'Your Excellency' followed by 'Sheikh' (pronounced 'shake' and not 'sheek') and their full name. Government ministers of the ruling line are 'Your Excellency, Minister of .. .' and other ministers simply 'Your Excellency' followed by the full name.

Lesser members of ruling families and those in religious authority are addressed as 'Sheikh' followed by their full name. In Saudi Arabia, the title has somewhat less significance and is also being used by powerful members of the business community. The conventions for addressing rulers and members of ruling families are complex, and you should always check locally before being introduced to any dignitaries.


The most common greeting in the Gulf is Salam alaykum ('Peace be upon you'), to which the correct reply is Wa alaykum as-salam ('And upon you be peace'). Other common greetings and the accepted replies are: 

 Greeting  Meaning   Reply 
 Ahlon wo sohlon  Hello  Ahlan bik 
 Sabah al-khayr  Good morning/afternoon  Sabah on-nur
 Masa al-khayr   Good evening   Masa on-nur 

Note that tisbah ala-khayr, meaning 'good night', is said on parting, as in English, and the reply is wa into min ahlu. You should always shake hands when greeting and parting from Arab men.

In the case of Arab women, you should be guided by the woman's behaviour: many Arab women won't shake hands with men, although business women might. This is normal even with close friends whom you meet frequently. If the handshake you receive when leaving somebody is longer than the one you received when meeting him, it indicates that you've made a good impression. Incidentally, newcomers should note that refusals or protracted reluctance to meet people are frowned upon.

Note also that you shouldn't approach Arab women, look at them or talk to them unless you've been properly introduced. After handshaking, it's customary to enquire after the other person's health and other matters, and you should expect similar enquiries to be directed at you. (Don't enquire after the health of the female members of an Arab's family, however, but restrict your questions to those regarding the family in general or the sons.) This can take a long time, as neither party wishes to be the one to draw matters to a close.

Foreigners aren't expected to know or use all the subtleties this ritual involves, but you will make a good impression if you learn at least some of the standard expressions and use them in the correct way. Whether in face-to-face conversation or speaking to people on the telephone, don't talk business straight away; if you do so, Arabs will assume that you're impatient or not interested in them personally.

Hands & Feet

You should accept refreshment whenever it's offered, but note that you should always use your right hand for drinking and eating, as the left hand is regarded as unclean (as it's used for 'toilet purposes'). Similarly, you should avoid showing the soles of your shoes or feet, which implies that you think the other person is 'dirt', which is obviously highly offensive. You should therefore keep your feet flat on the ground and not cross your legs.


If you're invited to the home of an Arab, you should always accept. You should generally take every opportunity to become acquainted with people and avoid the natural tendency to stay within the social and physical confines of your foreign 'ghetto'. Your Arab host will be interested in you and your views. However, you should avoid politics and religion as subjects for discussion; your opinions might be regarded as ill-informed or even offensive, even if they seem acceptable to you from a western perspective.

When you enter the majlis, the reception room for visitors, you should always remove your footwear, unless the host indicates otherwise (you should therefore ensure that there are no holes in you socks!). If you're with a female companion, she will be whisked off to join the women. You will almost certainly be offered something to drink and perhaps eat; accept the offer. Arabs are almost always polite and expect the same from those they meet, and believe that sharing a meal with a person positively affects the relationship.

The standard greeting is Ahlan wa sahlan — which means welcome - and this will become familiar to  all who visit Qatar. It's certainly worth learning enough Arabic to communicate the pleasantries, greetings and responses of the country you're living in. You will enjoy people's reaction and your hosts invariably offer encouragement to those who attempt to speak their language.

It's important to note, however, that the Arabic language has a special significance, having been designed to carry the word of God, so it's important to use it respectfully. You should also never call at an Arab's house without warning him that you're coming. If the women of the family are present, this won't be appreciated, particularly in Saudi Arabia. You should also avoid expressing admiration for any of your host's possessions, as tradition dictates that he must then offer it to you.

Although this tradition isn't followed by everybody, it can nevertheless cause embarrassment. What's more, the correct response is for the recipient to give an even more valued gift in return, so think twice before admiring an Arab's Rolls Royce!

Other Dos and Don'ts

You should also heed the following warnings:

• Don't offer alcoholic drinks to Arabs, unless you're certain that they drink alcohol. This can cause great offence.

• Don't walk on a prayer mat or in front of any person at prayer and try not to stare at people who are praying. 

• Don't try to enter a mosque without first asking permission. It's unlikely that you will be allowed in.

• In Saudi Arabia, don't try to enter the Holy sites of the areas surrounding Mecca and Medina. The roads are well signposted to notify everybody of this restriction. If a non-Muslim is found within the prohibited areas, they will be asked to leave.

• Avoid blasphemy, particularly in the presence of Muslims & particularly in Saudi Arabia. Remember that there are many non-Gulf Arabs working in 
the Middle East, who aren't always as relaxed or tolerant as locals are.

• Avoid putting an Arab in a position where he might suffer a 'loss of face' in front of other Arabs. He will appreciate this, if he notices your action.

• Don't beckon to people with a finger, as this is considered particularly impolite. Arabs might use such a gesture to summon a dog.

• Avoid shouting and displays of aggression or drunkenness at all times, as such behaviour is rarely tolerated.

• During Ramadan, don't eat, drink or smoke anywhere where you can be seen by Muslims during the hours of daylight and don't engage in any noisy behaviour or embrace or kiss anyone in public.

Religion - some tips about Islam

Islam is the main religion in the Gulf. Learning something about Islam and respecting its traditions and practices is important for all expatriates.

Note that followers of the Islamic faith are Muslims or Moslems, depending on the chosen spelling of the word. They aren't to be called Mohammedans. For Muslims, Islam isn't just a religion but a way of life that governs and guides their path throug this world and the next. It's an integral and pervasive part of all aspects of life. Public worship is viewed as more important than almost anything else, religious books and writings are found everywhere, and the phrase 'In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful' is found at the top of most correspondence. Islam means 'active submission to the will of God'.

The religion teaches that Allah controls absolutely everything and, when making plans, you often hear the response 'in sha Allah' ('God willing'). You will also hear 'La ilaha ilia Allah, Mohammadun rasulu Allah' ('There's no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet'). Mohammed was born in Mecca in around 571AD and began to receive revelations at the age of 40. Three years later, he started to preach and to challenge the local pagan religions. As a result, Mohammed and his followers — Muslims — had to flee to the town of Medina in 622AD. This exodus (hijra) is regarded as the beginning of the Muslim age and is therefore year zero, the beginning of the Islamic calendar, in the same way as the date given for Christ's birth is the beginning of the Christian calendar.

The Holy Koran (Qu'ran) is God's word as revealed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed in Mecca and, along with other writings, it sets out rules for every aspect of life. Whereas the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah consist of later writings of a number of individuals, the Koran is seen as the direct word of God. The main point of disagreement with Christianity is that, while Muslims perceive and venerate Jesus as a prophet (second in stature only to Mohammed), they dispute his divinity. In the words of the Koran, 'Neither was God born, nor did he give birth'.

The Muslim believes that all people are born to Islam but are diverted to other religions, usually by their parents. There are five 'pillars' of Islam: Faith (shahada): The first pillar is the profession of faith, which is the belief that 'there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the Prophet of God'. Prayer (salah or salon: The second pillar lays out the obligatory prayers to be performed by devout Muslims five times a day. As the sun rises for each new day, the faithful are called to prayer by a muezzin (or nowadays often by a tape recording) with the following declaration of faith, known as the 'Shahadah'. Prayer times are at dawn (faj noon (dhuhr), mid-afternoon (asir), sunset (maghreb) and nightfall (isha).

The times of the dawn and sunset prayers are traditionally the earliest and latest times at which you can see the difference between a black thread and a white thread, using only natural light. All newspapers publish the prayer times to be observed on that day. The duration of prayers varies with the prayer leader (Imam) but is usually between ten minutes and half an hour. You can pray anywhere, but Friday noon prayers must be performed in a mosque. Muslims wash before praying to show a willingness to be purified. Non-Muslims aren't expected to do anything in particular during prayer times, although you shouldn't watch or pass close in front of anyone who is praying or step on his prayer mat.

Charity (zakat):

The third pillar of the Muslim faith involves the (obligatory) donation of a 40th of the value of your assets annually a sort of 'alms tax'. Fortunately, this doesn't apply to non-Muslims.

Fasting (sawm):

The fourth pillar concerns the Ramadan Fast, when Muslims must fast during the hours of daylight for the whole of this Holy month. The fast is an act of self-purification and a test of strength, patience and inner knowledge. Muslims must refrain from drinking, eating, smoking and all other physical pleasures, including sexual activity. Eid Al-Fitr ('the big festival'), is the festival of the breaking of the fast, when the whole community celebrates, families visiting each other and children wearing new clothes.

Non-Muslims usually join in and enjoy the fu This is also an occasion for people to pay their respects to the ruler and any notable families that they do business with or are in regular contact with. Coffee and sweets are served, and the host and his family and friends are wished 'Eid mubarraq' ('congratulations on the occasion of the festival). The Eid Al-Fitr is also a time when people pay money or donate food to a charity called Sadaqah Al-Fitr, which provides food for the needy.

Pilgrimage (Hajj or Hal)

The fifth and final pillar of Islam declares that it's incumbent on every Muslim who can afford it to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in his life. The reward for doing so is impressive: forgiveness for all sins. Thd Hal is an annual event, which takes place in the 12th month (Dhul-Hijah) of the Muslim calendar. It's a well-organised event, although such is the demand to make the pilgrimage that quotas have had to be enforced on each country. 

Some branches of Islam insist that men shave their heads for the pilgrimage, and on arrival at Mecca all pilgrims must wear the ihram, a seamless white garment wrapped around the body and making the wearer indistinguishable as to class or status: all are equal before God. There are also many complex rituals to be observed. At the end of the Hal, the Eid Al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) is celebrated. According to Islam, the 'sabbath' or holy day is Friday (AI-Juma), when shops and businesses are normally closed.

Muslim Sects

When Islam arrived in the 7th century, Christianity and Judaism had become riven by factions and disagreements. The new religion seemed to offer a pure alternative to both of them, without hierarchies and rituals and offering a direct relationship with God. When the prophet died in 632AD with no sons, power was initially given to Abu Bakr (father of Mohammed's second wife, Aisha), who became Mohammed's successor. 

He and his descendants were called Shi'ites Shi'a Muslims). Then Mohammed's cousin was superceded by the Umayyad dynasty, which came to prominence throughout most of the Muslim world and created the Sunni sect. 
The two sects still exist today, Sunnis being the more orthodox group and accounting for around 90 per cent of the world's 1 billion Muslims. Except in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, Sunnis are the majority in all Arab countries. They regard the Shi'ites as giving excessive importance to prayer leaders (Imams), whom they regarded as a kind of divine intermediary of God - to an extent that is almost sacrilegious. 

Shi'a representation is also strong in Kuwait and Iran, and Shi'ites have gained notoriety due to the unrest caused by some of their followers, although the vast majority are peaceful. 

We hope this guide has been of help. However, if you have any questions, or if you would like further advice on any aspect of your move to the Middle East, do not hesitate to contact us or email: